Publishing Consultant And PublisHer Board Member Emma House Interviews Inspiring Bookwomen Around The World.
Alīse Nīgale is the co-founder and publisher at Liels un Mazs, an independent, award-winning, family-owned publishing house founded in 2004 in Riga, Latvia.
Liels un Mazs focuses on publishing contemporary picture books and quality fiction, and international rights sales.
Mother-of-three Alīse is a Latvian Publishers Association board member and IBBY Latvia member. She is passionate about publishing books to develop children’s artistic and literary tastes and enrich their reading experience by combining literature with other media.
What drove you to set up a children’s publishing house?
I started my studies only after my first few jobs – freelancing for a daily newspaper and then in the television industry working on reality shows. However, both professions are rooted in my family: my parents are writers, journalists and editors, and my brother works as an editor in a national news agency.
My mother is the loved Latvian writer Inese Zandere. She won a manuscript competition for children’s poetry in 2000. These were the poems she had written over 20 years (while I was growing up). When I read those, I realised that at the age of 22 I was still very keen on children’s literature. Her book quickly became popular and won many literature and design awards, resulting in bookshops selling all their stock. However, shortly after this book was published, the publisher of the book went bankrupt. My mother continued to receive frequent questions about her book, especially whether it would be published again. One friend even rewrote the whole book by hand to give it as a present to someone!
Working in entertainment programs on television did not give me the feeling that I was doing something meaningful, so I quit that job. Then one day, a brilliant idea came to our minds: we could start to publish children’s books ourselves. It was one of those unexpected decisions made in the kitchen after a family dinner. Really, why not? We can do it! That is how the publishing house started. We are three female family members who cofounded the publishing house without any business plan or any startup capital. Our company started as a one-book project and has become one of Latvia’s leading children’s book publishers. We also received the BOP Prize (Bologna Prize for the Best Children’s Publishers) for Europe in 2022. When we started, we knew we were taking a risk, but we did it with great confidence that our ideas and values would have followers. Fortunately, we were right, and our approach has reached many parents and young readers. The books we publish are an excellent way to spend time with children and are like a bridge for family members to discuss serious, complex topics. These are also books that show the variety of different styles and genres in literature and illustration. Many parents find it necessary to broaden their children’s literary and visual tastes.
You’ve participated in several invitation and fellowship programmes. How have they helped your career?
There are no opportunities to study publishing in Latvia. My career has been the process of learning by doing. This requires a lot of energy and sometimes limits growth because the lack of theoretical knowledge does not allow me to see the big picture or trust my own decisions fully. So, every program I have participated in has widened my perspective on publishing, and I have gained new knowledge. They are also crucial for networking between international publishers. What I like most about book fairs and fellowships is that I can meet many likeminded publishers with the same interests and values. Coming from a small country, I sometimes miss more likeminded fellows in the publishing field at home. But I have found many worldwide.
As a member of the Latvian Publishers Association and other organizations, why do you feel participating in industry initiatives is important?
In a small country we are limited in many ways, so being involved in international processes is important to prevent our work from becoming provincial. At the same time, for example, with the current war in Ukraine, it’s clear our contribution internationally is also significant: we have a much clearer understanding of the nature of an aggressor state because we have experienced it in action ourselves and we are able to explain it to the rest of the world and stand up for Ukraine without any compromises.
What have been the biggest challenges in your publishing career? Was your gender ever a factor?
One of my biggest personal challenges has always been finding a balance between family and work relationships between the three owners of the publishing house: my mother, cousin, and me. However, with the growth of the publishing house, it has become easier and easier, and each of us has learned and accepted our role in the company.
Another challenge has been to start to sell translation rights: learning all aspects of different markets: which formats work in which market, which topics are taboo, which art triggers German, which French publishers’ taste etc. Also, to explain all this to authors and convince them to think of those international aspects when creating a book. But I think I succeeded: we are now the leading publishing house in Latvia for selling rights internationally.
As I already mentioned, the lack of a theoretical basis in publishing has been challenging. I had to use my gut feeling instead, which is hard to explain, but I have followed it. So far, it has always led us in the right direction.
As for gender, yes, I have experienced some attitudes. At the beginning of my career, it was even more connected with my age, or a combination of gender and age. For example, “what can this ‘little girl’ know about publishing books?” Luckily, I don’t face these attitudes anymore. I hope a general shift in society is very slowly moving in the right direction. Or maybe I am just old enough to be taken seriously, finally.
What were your best and proudest moments?
Winning the BOP Prize last spring obviously was the moment of my recent career. However, I like to celebrate the small steps, too: successful grant project applications, national prizes, a good book review or feedback from readers on how important the book has become to them. Everything counts.
One of the most significant achievements is that we have followed our aim from the beginning — to publish outstanding and important books we love. We do not compromise because it might be too expensive in production or not sell so well. If we find the book important, we publish it in the best possible production quality.
I can illustrate it with an example from those times I worked on TV: the producer argued in some discussions that buying more Hollywood action movies is necessary, as this is what people know and like to watch. This safe model could also be extended to children’s books. We could only publish what people are used to. However, we chose a different approach — people cannot want to read books in genres and styles they do not know simply because they do not know them yet. We chose that for our main aim — to diversify and enrich Latvia’s children’s book publishing field.
Also, I am proud that we have been involved in many cross-cultural projects, like exhibitions, animation movies and theatre productions. Through this, we show the importance of quality content in children’s culture.
What are your future ambitions for your publishing career?
When I first visited the London Book Fair, Mexico was the guest of honour. I walked into a room where a panel discussion was about to end. One of the panelists was Cristina Urrutia from Ediciones Tecolete. She also was addressed with the similar question you ask me now. And she answered that she plans to stay a small publisher. I adopted her answer as my motto because being small gives you the freedom to experiment, to take risks without such high costs, and to be more creative and flexible with whatever comes your way. Even if we have grown, we are still a small publisher, but the influence our books can create is big. The name of our publishing house — Liels un Mazs — means ‘big and small’.
Has anyone motivated, inspired or mentored you in your career? Have your children influenced your publishing?
The children’s literature I read as a child has given me a passion for good children’s books, especially Astrid Lindgren’s books. Of course, my mother was an inspiration and mentor for me at the beginning. She has a lifelong experience as an editor and an outstanding literary and language sense. Her children’s poetry is very playful yet philosophical, and she uses musical language. I want to mention my good friend and biggest mentor in selling rights, Lawrence Schimel. He has always been open to explaining, connecting, helping, and suggesting — I am amazed by Lawrence’s energy and knowledge he is ready to share with many in the international publishing field.
My children have been the first audience of many of our books. It has always been interesting to see what they like; however, I always consider that they are my children and can react more complimentarily than the general audience. My older son sometimes helps us if we have a pop-up shop during the Christmas season or if we need to pack lots of books to ship to customers after an online promotion.
How would you describe the publishing industry in Latvia? How supported are women in leadership in Latvia?
The publishing industry in Latvia is relatively small: we have one large publishing house and many small ones. The average print run is 1000 copies, approximately 1,800 new titles are published every year, and from those, around 30% are translations from other languages. Poetry and children’s books are the most vital segments of the field.
However, the publishing industry in Latvia has little money. You can see that fewer men work in publishing and many publishing companies are owned or led by women. That highlights the problem we still face in Latvia, that men are better paid than women. Unfortunately, there are few instruments for supporting women in publishing or business in general. I hope to see it changing soon as we are having more open discussions about these matters.
This interview was originally prepared for BookBrunch.co.uk and is reproduced here with kind permission.